How Dirty Is Your Home’s Electricity?
by Mary Thill
During these darkest days of the year we leave the lights on longer. But where does our power come from?
In the Adirondacks—where our lakes, forests and fish are saturated with mercury and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants—I don’t want to trigger more airborne toxins when I flip a switch. Nor, in this not-very-white December, do I want my Christmas lights to be responsible for the melting of a single snowflake.
Uncovering the source of your electricity is getting easier. The EPA Power Profiler website helps you track it by zip code. When I input my zip (Saranac Lake) and our local utility (National Grid), Power Profiler reported that most of our electricity is generated by hydro (30 percent) or nuclear (30 percent). Fifteen percent comes from coal, which is pretty low compared to the national average of 45 percent. Our carbon-dioxide emissions rate is also a fraction of the national rate.
The website can’t trace the line from your house to a particular facility or river, but it can help you calculate your household emissions and learn how to make your home more energy efficient.
Another EPA website, Green Power Partnership, helps you locate cleaner electricity options. Many distributors, including National Grid, offer customers the choice of going exclusively or partially with certified renewable-energy sources such as wind or small hydro. The plans come with a premium, usually an extra 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour for 100-percent non-fossil power.
So, how easy is it to actually switch? The Green Power Partnership site was minimally useful. It did get me thinking about cleaner options, but it’s out of date. So I called a National Grid customer-service representative and was guided through five renewable-energy provider choices. I selected a certified plan that offered 90 percent small hydro and 10 percent wind. National Grid told me I would have to call that provider, Green Mountain Energy, and sign up separately. When I did, the staffer at the other end of the line said his company does not serve National Grid customers. When I then called National Grid’s communications office, a spokesperson emailed me its GreenUp Program website and cautioned that the information is subject to change. (The Green Mountain option is still listed but if you call that number, National Grid customers will be told no service is available. However, if you call Green Mountain at the number on its website, you will be told a different plan is available.) Frustrating. Eventually I signed up online for Sterling Planet’s 50/50 mix of wind and small hydro. After an hour of untangling crossed wires, actual sign-up took less than five minutes.
Based on the little research I’ve done on renewables, the environmental impact of small hydro seems less than wind or biomass. But there are so few small-hydro producers that their product is already at maximum demand. If your goal is to increase the supply of renewable sources, you might maximize your impact by selecting other options.
You still won’t be able to trace which turbine or stream powers your home. Instead, you create markets for renewable energy and—hopefully—reduce its cost and reduce our collective dependence on fossil fuels.